On October 19th, 1864, the town of St. Albans, Vermont was quiet as usual. It was the day after Market Day, business was slow, and most of the citizens were either in Montpelier for the meeting of the state legislature or in Burlington for the session of the Vermont Supreme Court.The locals referred to their home as “Rail City,” but in actuality St. Albans held the characteristics of a trade-post and farm residence; to the Confederate lieutenant, Bennett H. Young, St. Albans was an ideal location. With a railroad running through town, St. Albans was the largest town near the Canadian border with three prominent banks within a block of each other, and a convenient escape route into Canada. On that rainy Wednesday afternoon, the Confederate raiders exited their accommodations and placed the town under the possession of the Confederate States of America. They then commenced to arrest citizens and put them under guard on the town green, rob three banks, shoot at the stubborn Vermonters (critically injuring one man and killing another), steal horses, attempt to burn down the town with homemade Greek Fire, and manage to burn a farmer’s hay wagon as they were chased out of town. The raiders escaped into Canada, but were soon arrested as suspects in the St. Albans Raid. Tried under pretense of violating the neutrality laws of Canada and to conclude whether they should be extradited to the United States of America, Lieutenant Young and his fellow raiders argued they were commissioned officers performing their ordered duty in a time of war. The raiders had been commissioned by the Confederate Government and ordered to raid St. Albans, but they were not ordered to rob the banks, making the act a crime rather than an act of war.
During the trial in Montreal, Canada, the witnesses of the defense produced official Confederate Government papers, displaying the commission of Bennett H. Young (the leader of the raid). However, four commission letters from James A. Seddon, Confederate Secretary of War, were all signed and dated June 16, 1864. Bernard Devlin, representative of the United States, pointed out the contradicting and vague orders of three of the four letters, which James Seddon signed on the same day.
In the first instructions given, Young is ordered to proceed without delay by the route already indicated to him, and to report to C.C. Clay, Jun., for orders. In the second, the same Bennett H. Young is order to proceed without delay to the British Provinces, and there report himself to Messrs. Thompson and Clay for instruction. While in the third set of instructions he is informed, that the organization will be made under the control of the War Department.At least one of the letters was legitimate enough to commission Bennett H. Young as Lieutenant in the Confederate army. William L. Price, a fellow prisoner of war and member of General John Hunt Morgan’s command, witnessed Young in action. Price saw Young “in the uniform used by Morgan’s command,” sharing that only commissioned officers were given uniforms, while enlistees “generally wear the clothes of citizens.” Young was also well known among Confederates in Chicago, where he and other raiders had previously escaped from Camp Douglas.
George N. Sanders, a Confederate also formerly belonging to General Morgan’s command, played a prominent role in managing the case of the Rebel raiders, claiming them all to be of “the first families of Kentucky.” Sanders tried desperately to promote the raiders to the Canadian public as honorable soldiers. He sent a letter to the editor of the Montreal Evening Telegraph, stating that the raiders “all having served in the Confederate army…and still in that service, were especially commissioned and detailed for that service, under the direct authority of, and, in fact, by direct orders from the government ofthe Confederate States.” Of course he was the one who formerly approached C.C. Clay, the Confederate Commissioner, who he convinced that attacking Northwest towns “would be legitimate acts of war in retaliation for the campaigns of” Sherman and Sheridan in the South. At this point in the American Civil War, the South was feeling the ever-tightening strain of the Federal blockade, and was losing ground. The St. Albans raid was supposed to be one of many, hoping that Federal troops would detach from the army in the South to fight off raiders on the Northern home front, while alleviating the Confederate troops from the on-going pressure of war and allow them to regain ground in the South. Clay then went ahead, sending a letter to Young, dated October 6, 1864, authorizing such raids as St. Albans.
Your report of your doings, under your instructions of 16th June last from the Secretary of War, covering the list of twenty Confederate soldiers who are escaped prisoners, collected and enrolled by you under those instructions, is received. Your suggestions for a raid upon accessible towns in Vermont, commencing with St. Albans, is approved, and you are authorized and required to act in conformity with that suggestion.
During the trial, George N. Sanders was called to the stand, as Clay was no longer in Canada, possibly fearing he had violated the neutrality laws. Sanders informed the court of Mr. Clay’s involvement in directing the raid and said, “Mr. Clay told me about the eighth day of December last, a few days before he left that he would leave such a letter as the paper writing marked P, and which I infer had not been written up to that time.” The fact that the letter wasn’t written until after the arrest of the St. Albans raiders, causes questions of the legitimacy of other letters between Young and Clay, which only showed proof of planning outside of Canada rather than from within.
Whether, Clay was afraid he had violated the neutrality laws of Canada, or that the St. Albans Raid was criminal, he definitely was fearful. In fact, he insisted he did not order the men to rob the banks. It is evident he did not hold the same sentiment as many of the other Confederates involved that the money should go to the Confederate Treasury for retribution in the damage caused by Generals Sherman and Sheridan and other such Federal campaigns. Jacob Thompson, a fellow Confederate commission agent, said, “I found that the raiders have refused to give up their money to Mr. Clay and that he has left the place in a huff, stigmatizing them as a band of thieves.” Clay had a fellow housemate, Beverly Tucker, write a testimonial on his involvement with the raid. On one occasion, when discussing the expedition with Young, Tucker overheard Clay remark, “that the object of his enterprise was to destroy property of the enemy by burning, etc., and that robbery was not contemplated in your instructions to him; and I think your words were: ‘Burn and destroy, but don’t rob, for this will demoralize your command.’” Other evidence shows Clay’s disgruntled attitude toward the raiders after the raid, leaving proof that he was anything but pleased by their actions.
The Confederate raiders of the St. Albans Raid were indeed guilty of robbing, murder, attempted murder, and arson. Fortunately for them they were deemed commissioned officers doing their authorized duty as soldiers of the Confederate government, not in violation of Canadian neutrality laws, concluding that they would not be extradited to the United States. Commissioned officers they most likely were, given the evidence of many authorized notes on Young’s commission, witness accounts of fellow soldiers in General Morgan’s command, and Clay’s admittance to the direction of the raid (the date of the above letter is irrelevant). However, the act of robbery seems to have not been authorized by Clay, leaving him displeased in the result of the raid, which he deemed “mere selfish plunder.” The commissioned raiders, although doing their duty in the act of war, became ruthless robbers in the small town of St. Albans, Vermont. In the eyes of many, they were mere criminals.